The Inflation Reduction Act contains tax breaks for solar and wind companies to buy American equipment. Qualifying won’t be easy.
Newly obtained documents reveal a Shell executive is also part of the federal advisory group for carbon capture, utilization and storage, which has been kept under wraps for two years.
Plastics contain toxic chemicals that can enter products and interact to create new harmful substances during the recycling process, a new report from Greenpeace and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) shows.
The report comes as negotiators from more than 180 nations meet in Paris this week to discuss a global plastics treaty, developing regulations to address the plastic pollution crisis. The backdrop is stark: Plastics production is currently on track to triple by 2060, causing harm to human health and the environment throughout its lifecycle from creation to disposal.
Capping plastics production is a key point of debate. Fifty-eight countries, aligned in a group called the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, want to see a treaty that slows production. Industry groups and countries that stand to profit from plastic production want to focus on waste management and recycling instead, according to scientists and advocates.
Plastics manufacturing is one of the largest industries in the U.S., but the country is still committed to a treaty with “strong binding provisions, not only voluntary actions,” said Jose Fernandez, under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and environment, at a High Ambition Coalition briefing. The U.S. is not a member of the coalition, instead calling for the treaty to direct nations to develop individual action plans.
Current plastic recycling systems “mold this unknown cocktail of potentially harmful substances together,” Melanie Bergmann, a biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute and a member of the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, who was not speaking on behalf of the coalition, told Environmental Health News (EHN).
That chemical cocktail can harm workers and communities around recycling sites and leach from recycled plastic products, the Greenpeace and IPEN report found.
A resolution on plastic is passed at the first round of global plastic treaty talks in March 2022.
Credit: UNEP/ Cyril Villemain
Only 9% of plastic is recycled and the rest is burned in incinerators, left to pollute nature or tossed in landfills that are often located in low and middle-income countries. But increasing recycling isn’t a viable solution, scientists and advocates point out. Plastics contain toxic chemicals, such as bisphenols (like BPA), phthalates and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and can also absorb materials from other products in the wastestream, like pesticides and pharmaceuticals, which can later leach out of the plastic. IPEN and Greenpeace advocate for limiting plastic production alongside eliminating toxic chemicals added to plastics to make safe recycled products feasible.
Fossil fuels are the raw material that makes plastic, and more than 13,000 chemicals are added to change durability, flexibility, color, UV-protection and more. Roughly 3,200 of those chemicals are considered a concern for human health, and an additional 6,000 have never been screened, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Program.
“Six thousand with no data is like driving blind,” Bjorn Beeler, international coordinator at IPEN, told EHN. Many chemicals added to plastics are linked with health risks including cancers, hormonal system disruptions and reproductive harms.
One solution involves simplification and transparency of ingredients in plastics. Lists of approved and unsafe chemicals could guide production and improve the safety of the end material, Bergmann said. Full transparency of ingredients could also help improve recycling and reduce the risk of creating new toxics.
But, “the single most important measure that we need to take is a cap on plastic production,” she said.
A statement released Friday by the High Ambition Coalition echoed this, saying the treaty must reduce plastic production and consumption. “We need to first close the tap by addressing the unsustainable sourcing and extraction of raw materials to make plastics,” Sir Molwyn Joseph, Antigua & Barbuda’s minister of health, wellness and the environment said at a briefing that day.
He emphasized that, as with climate change, developing countries contribute little to the plastic pollution crisis but bear the brunt of the impact. “We have a very small window to address and arrest the severe damage being done by plastics not only to the environment but to human health,” he said.
The mandate for the treaty was agreed on in March 2022, and is currently in its second of five weeks of discussions, spread across three years. The first meeting in late 2022 focused on procedures for the talks, and this week negotiators are expected to dive into substantive issues.
So far, some countries including Saudi Arabia, Russia, India and China have held up talks with procedural issues, opposing the possibility of a vote on a final treaty if consensus can’t be reached. These are countries that profit significantly from the production of fossil fuels, plastics or petrochemicals.
Countries’ ability to agree on a treaty objective will be the measure of success for the week, Beeler said. He hopes to see an objective to protect the environment and human health from adverse impacts at all stages of the plastic lifecycle.
“We are now more than one year into negotiations,” said Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, Rwanda’s minister of environment, at the High Ambition Coalition briefing. “However, since then more than 400 million tons of new plastic have been produced and another 22 million tons of plastic waste has ended up in nature…We need to move quickly into treaty-making mode.”
PITTSBURGH — Hospitals save lives — but they’re also complex ecosystems that generate toxic waste, rely on fossil fuels and instigate health problems due to harmful emissions.
Change comes hard to healthcare institutions, but a growing movement of doctors, nurses, medical school students and hospital system executives are working to clean up the industry.
Around 650 health care professionals from around the world gathered in Pittsburgh last week to strategize about ways to reduce waste and air pollution, disinvest from fossil fuels, better integrate communities, drive down the industry’s climate-warming emissions and hear success stories from people on the front lines of this work.
“[This] is not just a conference — we’re intentionally building a movement,” said Gary Cohen, president and co-founder of Health Care Without Harm, the organization that hosts the CleanMed conference, during his opening remarks. “This is the work of our lifetime. Are we ready to get going?”
Ironically, the healthcare industry takes a significant toll on the environment in ways that negatively impact human health. The sector accounts for an estimated 4.4% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and up to 9.8% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Health damages from the U.S. healthcare sector’s pollution – including greenhouse gasses, carcinogenic emissions and other toxic air pollutants – from 2003-2013 are estimated to have cost Americans more than 400,000 years of full health, defined as years lived free of disease or disability. It’s estimated that nearly eight million, or one in five deaths globally, are caused by air pollution — more than the number of deaths caused by AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.Institutional investments are also problematic: The U.S. has more than 1,200 private hospital systems, which invest an estimated $10 billion in fossil fuels.
People who have successfully initiated new sustainability programs or policies at their organizations shared tools and tips.
Credit: Kristina Marusic for Environmental Health News
The doctors and nurses attending CleanMed were joined by operations managers, sustainability directors, budget analysts, medical device providers and health-care-strategy consultants, along with people in numerous other roles.
People who have successfully initiated new sustainability programs or policies at their organizations shared tools and tips.
Elizabeth McLellan was one of those people. In the early 2000s, while working as a nurse administrator at Maine Medical Center, she was troubled by the huge volume of unused supplies like gloves, gowns, gauze, bandages and masks going into the trash because they’d been left in a patient’s room or opened in an operating room.
McLellan had lived and worked abroad and knew there was a dire need for these supplies in other parts of the world, so she started collecting them. There was nowhere on site at her hospital to store the supplies she saved, so she took them home.
By 2009 the bottom floor of her house was filled with about 11,000 pounds of rescued medical supplies, which she eventually figured out how to warehouse, ship and donate to hospitals in need around the world. After running the project entirely by herself for years, McLellan scaled the operation into a regional nonprofit, Partners for World Health, with 10 staff members and 800 volunteers, that has saved more than 180,000 pounds of medical supplies from landfills and shipped them to countries in need including Ukraine, Syria, Turkey, Zambia, Haiti, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya.
“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission,” she said in a session about hospitals making progress toward becoming zero-waste. “That has worked my whole career, and it worked for this project, too.”
In one of two talks about reducing single-use plastics, Dr. Sara Angelilli, director of perioperative education at the Allegheny Health Network, talked about implementing reusable respirators. Dr. Preetri Preeti Mehrotra, a senior medical director at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, shared tips on finding the people who “can help pull the levers,” and discussed both infection control and financial benefits in switching to reusable products. And Daniel Vukelich, president of the Association of Medical Device Reprocessors, cautioned about the false promise of “chemical recycling” of single-use plastics, which is associated with a host of climate and environmental health concerns. Health Care Without Harm is also calling for the global plastics treaty currently in its second round of talks this week in Paris, to not allow medical exemptions.
Other health care professionals shared advice about incorporating environmental justice and community health advocacy into clinical care by setting and meeting renewable energy goals, managing hazardous pharmaceutical waste, getting clinicians involved in climate action and increasing patient access to healthy and sustainable foods inside hospitals and at home. Health Care Without Harm partners with hospitals around the world to help them meet these types of goals through its Practice GreenHealth program.
“In the last year or two, hospitals are increasingly looking beyond their four walls when talking about community resilience and environmental health,” Paul Bogart, executive director of Health Care Without Harm, told EHN. “They’re starting to think about economic drivers of community health and social determinants of health — things like housing, transportation, employment and exposure to polluting facilities.”
“That type of work, for many health care institutions, is just beginning,” Bogart added. “Those relationships with community leaders are just beginning.”
Attendees representing at least 15 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Japan, Nepal, South Korea and Taiwan attended the CleanMed conference.
Previous conferences have been held in cities across the U.S. and across the world, and conference organizers connect what’s happening locally with the broader movement.
In Pittsburgh, that meant acknowledging the city’s industrial history, discussing ongoing problems with air pollution and childhood lead exposure and addressing the significant role that extractive industries, particularly fracking and petrochemical development, play in shaping the region’s health. It also meant asking questions about the health care industry’s obligations to communities impacted by these problems.
“The fossil fuel and petrochemical industries require externalizing harm,” said Cohen during a plenary on building partnerships between health care institutions and community advocacy. “We need to understand who is harmed by an economy that’s based on fossil fuels and toxic chemicals … What does it mean for the health care industry to truly partner with these communities to help build community health, wealth and resilience?”
As parties to the United Nations Environment Assembly gather this week in Paris to negotiate a first-ever Global Plastic Treaty, they have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to prevent public heath crises and mitigate climate change.
Countries should negotiate a rights-respecting treaty that fully encompasses the impacts of plastic production, use and disposal on human health and the environment.
Delegates should push for a treaty that takes a full-lifecycle approach to plastic pollution, including specific and time-bound steps to end the production of unnecessary virgin plastics, like single-use packaging, and to establish a cap on plastic production.
The treaty should also ban the use of toxic chemical additives in plastics, like the 3,200 plastic chemicals known to harm human health.
Shell's new petrochemical complex in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Credit: Nate Smallwood for Environmental Health News and Sierra Magazine
Almost all plastics are made from a combination of noxious chemicals and fossil fuels: oil, gas and even coal. Communities living near plastic and petrochemicals plants are exposed to air and water pollution that contribute to high rates of cancer, respiratory diseases, and other illnesses. They are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color, including on the U.S. Gulf Coast, where the chemicals in the disastrous February Ohio train-derailment were made.
Plastics are not just a threat to human health, but also a major contributor to the climate change crisis.
The petrochemical industry is rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil consumption, projected to account for roughly half of the growth in oil demand by 2050. At its current rate of growth, petrochemical production will account for an astonishing 15% of the global carbon budget by 2050. If plastic and petrochemical production continue to increase, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.
The plastics plague is a relatively new problem. Since plastics became a common product in the 1950s, their popularity has skyrocketed, with global plastic production growing from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 400 million metric tons in 2022.
As global energy systems transition away from fossil fuels, oil and gas companies are increasing investments in plastics and petrochemical production in attempts to protect their profits and continue extracting fossil fuels.
Perversely, in the midst of the climate crisis public financing of fossil fuels and petrochemicals continues to prop up the plastics sector. A recent study found that governments provided $33.4 billion to large-scale petrochemical projects from 2010 to 2020. More broadly, from 2019 to 2021, G20 countries and multilateral development banks provided at least $55 billion per year for fossil fuels.
Negotiations over the Global Plastic Treaty provide a key moment for countries to shift the tide away from toxic, climate-destructive plastics. For example, the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, a group of roughly 50 countries, is calling for the treaty to “restrain plastic consumption and production to sustainable levels,” as well as promote a circular economy that protects the environment and human health and achieves environmentally-sound management of plastic waste.
In March 2022, countries agreed to negotiate an international, legally binding mechanism on plastic pollution by the end of 2024. This week’s convening of negotiators at UNESCO headquarters will be the second of five meetings of the International Negotiating Committee.
Unfortunately, this second round of treaty negotiations is off to a rough start. The Secretariat overseeing the treaty negotiations announced that only a small number of the registered observers – including scientists, Indigenous Peoples, and civil society groups – would be allowed into the building. This is unfortunate, as a strong plastics treaty requires that scientists, experts and impacted communities can meaningfully participate in the process. The UN should prioritize those voices over the big polluters in attendance by taking steps to increase public participation in Paris, including by providing overflow rooms from which representatives of civil society can actively participate.
While many industries are making significant, if unrealized, commitments towards renewables and away from fossil fuels, the plastics industry blithely carries on making the problem worse. To protect human health and address the climate crisis, it is imperative for governments to step up and negotiate a strong Global Plastic Treaty that respects human rights and protects our environment.